Stephen Sondheim, legendary composer, singer, director, left marks on culture

The maven of American musical theater announced his death on Twitter, and music-world and literary stars took to social media to honor the enduring legacy of the composer of “Follies” and “Assassins.”

Stephen Sondheim is gone, and after decades of dazzling inspiration, listeners are in shock. The adroit maestro who has won every imaginable creative honor has left behind an uncanny catalog of greatest hits.

His diverse body of work spans feature films, television, and books, yet a symphony of his Broadway signature songs remains front and center. While some may recognize the ringing lullaby “Send in the Clowns” as a piece of dubstep, the rest are a running, irresistible song of the seasons.

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Arguably the most beloved composer of Broadway with more than 300 musicals, Sondheim was a preeminent interpreter of the American songbook. After the 1990 death of Leonard Bernstein, the future would not be kind to Sondheim, not by a long shot. His critical obloquy began when he opted to make “Pacific Overtures” into a movie, causing opera fans to associate him with “A Star Is Born.” More chillingly, the musical “Assassins” was essentially a rap and drew pointed criticism. Music-world stars unleashed their wrath.

Much later, Sondheim agreed to direct the 2009 George Lucas film “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.” He was slapped with an ugly review from Roger Ebert, who called his directorial experience a “cynical display of desperation.” But Sondheim was forced to sing during the film’s funeral scene, so the fact that the lack of applause at the end hurt him less than critical reviews does, I imagine.

The last decade of Sondheim’s career has been framed by a failed libel suit by former Columbia Pictures executive James L. Brooks over comments Sondheim made about Brooks in the Public Theater’s 1994 play “Company.” Last week, Sondheim’s attorney in that matter, Lawrence F. Mintz, sent notice to the real estate magnate that a $1.9 million settlement was imminent.

“What a fuss,” Sondheim said sarcastically in a final recording of his 1994 album, “Catch Me if You Can,” per New York magazine. “You’d think I’d have to hire a lawyer to do that. But every time I say something embarrassing, people run for their lawyers.”

The fallout was marked by harsh criticism from fans, professional stumbles and, perhaps ironically, an onslaught of celebrity book reviews, most of which were scornful, with plenty of evidence that Sondheim was considered to be “most definitely over.”

Sondheim’s last novel, “Strong Bed and Cold Refrigerator,” was published in 2011, but his output of nonfiction titles would continue to eclipse those of the last decade.

The 75-year-old received, and amassed much acclaim for, two books: “Big Dreams,” “The Little Voice: Mozart’s Childhood Love Letters” and “Sunday in the Park With George.”

Al Gore’s 2009 book, “The Assault on Reason,” became a bestseller and “A New Earth: Awakening the Wisdom Within Every One of Us,” a late release, was named a New York Times bestseller. “The Vagina Monologues,” a self-described hedonistic memoir, became a Broadway spectacle that was a personal favorite and an equal-opportunity offender. “Just As I Am,” Sondheim’s 2014 memoir, became a bestseller and fetched widespread critical acclaim.

Entertainer Amy Schumer, in a Golden Globe announcement from 2017, revealed the catalyst for “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” the four-hour film in which Sondheim provided lyrics to two of the show’s best songs.

“I called up Stephen Sondheim, who I adore, and I said, ‘How do you make a film?’” Schumer said on the NBC show “Today.”

“And he literally goes, ‘You have to build a cage on wheels and tow it down the street. Let’s come by the set and see what we have here.’”

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